With the launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, the modern space age began, and countless space firsts would follow. By the end of the next decade, the first manned space flight and the first people in space were years in the past, and both Russia and the United States had developed space programs, amid a tense space race to be the first to land a man on the moon. The United States won that one with “one giant leap for mankind” in July 1969.
Since that historic Moon landing, there have been many more space firsts as space travel and space exploration have pushed their own boundaries: the first reusable spacecraft (the space shuttle), the first landing on Mars, the first space telescope, the first space station and, in July 2015, the first flyby of dwarf planet Pluto.
The space race may be over, and the first space flight is just a part of space travel history, but that doesn’t mean mankind has stopped “boldly going where no man has gone before.” Peruse some of history’s most notable space firsts below and let your imagination wander… perhaps to “a galaxy far, far away.” What do you think the next space first will be? Who will be the next big names in the history of space travel?
1957 – First Satellite to Orbit Earth
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. This marked the beginning of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
1957 – First Animal in Space
The first animal from Earth to be launched into space was a female dog from Russia named Laika, who took flight in 1957. She lived for seven days inside Sputnik II , proving that living creatures could survive in space. Unfortnately, there was no way to bring Laika back to Earth, so she also became the first animal to die in space.
1961 – First Human in Space
Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on April 12, 1961. There were some problems upon reentry, and Gagarin ejected from the Vostok 1 and parachuted to Earth.
1961 – First American in Space
Alan Shepard made a 15 minute, 28 second flight on board the Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961. Three weeks later, President John F. Kennedy vowed to send men to the moon and back by the end of the ’60s.
1961 – First Person to Spend Over a Day in Space
Gherman Titov was the first person to hang out in space for longer than a day. Part of Vostok 2 in 1961, he was also the first person to sleep in space.
1962 – First American to Orbit the Earth
John Glenn circled the Earth three times in 4 hours and 56 minutes on February 20, 1962.
1963 – First Woman in Space
The Soviets launched Valentina Tereshkova into space on June 16, 1963, on board Vostok 6. She spent three days alone in space.
1965 – First Space Walk
Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov took the first space walk on March 18, 1965. He was tethered to the Voskhod 2 and was outside the craft for 10 minutes.
1967 – First Person to Die in Space
Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died when the Soyuz 2 crashed upon reentry on April 24, 1967.
1969 – First Crew Exchange in Space
The very first crew exchange in space took place in 1969, between the Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5 spacecrafts.
1970 – First Space Rescue
In 1970, after an oxygen tank exploded on board Apollo 13, Mission Control helped the crew return safely to Earth four days later. The story was told both by mission commander Him Lovell, in his bookLost Moon, and on-screen in the 1995 movie Apollo 13, starring Tom Hanks, Ed Harris, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, and Gary Sinise.
1972 – First Spacecraft to Leave the Solar System
Pioneer 10 was launched in 1972 and became the first spacecraft to leave our solar system on September 22, 1990. At that point, it reached a distance 50 times farther from the sun than Earth is. It is currently en route to the constellation Taurus.
1973 – First American Space Station
Skylab launched on May 14, 1973 but was damaged during launch. The first of three crews arrived 11 days later for a 28-day stay. They made in-orbit repairs and set records for the longest amount of time spent in space (at the time).
1976 – First Mars Landing
The unmanned space probe Viking 1 transmitted the first pictures from the surface of Mars on July 20, 1976.
1981 – First Reusable Space Vehicle
The space shuttle Columbia took off like a rocket and landed like an airplane in 1981, becoming the world’s first reusable space vehicle. Sadly, the Columbia disintegrated in 2003, after a piece of foam broke off its external tank and struck the vehicle’s left wing, killing everyone on board.
1983 – The First African American in Space
Guion “Guy” Bluford Jr. became the first African American in space on board the space shuttle Challenger on August 30, 1983.
1984 – First Untethered Space Walk
1984, Bruce McCandless and Robert Stewart made the first untethered spacewalks in history. They were aboard the STS-8 Challenger flight, and, with the use of jetpacks, navigated away from the shuttle, with no tethers at all.
1986 – First Civilian Death
When the space shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, it killed all seven crew members. One of them was Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space.
1990 – First Space Telescope
In 1990, the space shuttle deployed the Hubble space telescope. This unique piece of technology allowed humans to look farther into space than ever before. A mirror was damaged on the telescope soon after deployment, but it was corrected by another space shuttle mission in 1993.
1997 – First Vote Cast from Space
In 1997, NASA astronaut David Wolf (pictured) cast the first vote in a federal election from space. Wolf was aboard the Russian Mir space station at the time. His vote was securely beamed back to Mission Control in Houston, who forwarded it along to voting authorities.
This process was made legal in 1997, but only in Texas, as almost all NASA astronauts live in that state, needed to be near Johnson Space Center in Houston.
1997 – First Surface Travel on Another Planet
Although a craft landed on Mars years earlier and took pictures, the robot Sojourner was a six wheel, remote-controlled, solar-powered vehicle that explored the surface of Mars and took pictures after landing on July 6, 1997.
2001 – First Space Tourist
Dennis Tito isn’t just an American engineer and multimillionaire, he was also the very first space tourist, following a self-funded flight in 2001. Tito spent eight days in orbit, visiting the International Space Station.
2003 – First Person to Be Married from Space
Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko was married on August 10, 2003. However, he just happened to be in space at the time.
2004 – First Spacecraft to Orbit Saturn
On July 1, 2004, Cassini-Huygens became the first spacecraft to go into orbit around Saturn. Later in the year, the spacecraft flew within 800 miles of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon and the only moon in our solar system with an atmosphere.
2004 – First Manned Private Spaceflight
SpaceShipOne was a suborbital air-launched spaceplane, manned by Mike Melvill. With the 2004 flight, Melvill also became the first private astronaut in space.
2015 – First Flyby of Dwarf Planet Pluto
In 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft was the first mission to take and send pictures of Pluto and its moon.
2015 – First Space Vegetables Eaten
On August 10, 2015, astronauts living on the International Space Station consumed the first crop of vegetables (lettuce, in this case) ever grown in space. The crop had been planted the previous July and astronauts ate just half the haul, sending the rest back to Earth for scientific analysis.
2016 – First Marathon Run in Space
On April 24, 2016, UK astronaut Tim Peake ran the London Marathon while aboard the International Space Station.